LAST month, a group of more than 20 human rights organisations made this stark statement to Boris Johnson: “There is no good reason to continue allowing child marriages to take place in this day and age.”

By “child marriage”, they meant weddings involving 16 and 17 year olds.

Child marriage is a powerful and emotive term and is often seen as a problem just for the developing world. In Scotland, the idea of under 18s marrying typically conjures up images of idealistic youngsters declaring their undying love. Young teenage marriages can work: we’ve all seen the couples who wed at that age getting interviewed holding hands in their care homes on their platinum anniversaries.

But describing unions involving 16 and 17 year olds as child marriage is not unreasonable. It’s not the overstatement it might seem. That’s because the current marriage age is at odds with the widely accepted modern definition of childhood, being under 18, and leaves some of the most vulnerable young teenagers open to exploitation. It’s time it changed.

It is legal to marry at 16 or 17 throughout the British Isles, though in England and Wales, unlike in Scotland, parental consent is required. But this week, the UK Government confirmed it supported moves to raise the minimum legal age of marriage in England and Wales from 16 to 18. A private members’ bill introduced by the former Home Secretary Sajid Javid will be debated in November.

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He has been motivated to act by concern that many such unions are “coerced or forced for cultural or religious reasons”.

Talking about forced marriage to The Times, Mr Javid said: “I’ve seen this myself in the community I was raised in: young girls expected to enter into marriage far before they were ready to with painful consequences. Let’s call this what it is: child abuse.”

In 2019 a quarter of cases – 363 – dealt with by the government’s UK-wide Forced Marriage Unit involved children aged under 18.

The group pushing for the change is led by Girls Not Brides and includes leading figures from organisations such as Muslim Women’s Network, Barnardo’s and Karma Nirvana, which supports victims of honour-based abuse. The group says that raising the marriage age will remove “the harms and barriers caused by child marriage, such as lower levels of education, domestic abuse, sexual violence, complications in pregnancy and childbirth, reduced employment opportunities, social exclusion linked to divorce and isolation”.

Raising the marriage age – something that both Tory and Lib Dem politicians have attempted in the past – is an important safeguard for vulnerable girls, and has another advantage. It better reflects the definition of childhood widely used by the UK and Scottish Governments: simply being under 18. There is now broad consensus that the teenage years should be for personal development, education and training, and marrying before 18 has become very unusual. The current minimum marriage age dates from before the Second World War and seems to have had more to do with families avoiding the shame of their daughters’ “illegitimate” pregnancies than with young love. Ninety years on, it’s time for it to go.

So why is Scotland not planning to change the marriage age too? In fact, why hasn’t it already done so? For a government that prides itself on its progressive credentials, it’s curious that Holyrood is lagging behind.

But act it must, and quickly. A situation cannot be allowed to arise where the law changes in England, but the possibility of marriage under 18 remains in place in Scotland. That would have concerning implications.

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This reform should pose no difficulty to the Scottish Parliament. Holyrood recently incorporated the UN convention on the rights of the child into domestic law, the first UK nation to do so. The convention sees a child as being under 18 and states that governments must protect children from abuse or exploitation.

This isn’t about imposing a blanket approach, by the way. No one is suggesting the age of consent should change. This is partly an acceptance of reality – you can’t stop teenagers having sex – but it’s also a recognition that, while teenagers can get embroiled in unhealthy sexual relationships outside marriage, the legal ties and social expectations around marriage make it much harder to escape a bad relationship.

In Scotland, of course, 16 and 17 year olds may now vote, an acknowledgement that people in their mid-teens have the maturity to make decisions affecting their futures.

But there’s a world of difference between casting one vote among millions and entering into a legal union with another person, one of the biggest decisions an individual can make.

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Raising the marriage age, meanwhile, is consistent with other legal limits set at 18 designed to protect children from harm, such as the drinking or smoking age.

Many countries in the world already ban marriage under 18, including all the Scandinavian nations with which the Scottish Government often seems to feel affinity.

The ultimate test for this proposal is surely this: do the benefits outweigh the harms? The answer is a resounding yes. By ending marriage under 18, you help prevent some vulnerable youngsters being manoeuvred into marriages they oppose, you prevent others entering impulsively into marriages they might later bitterly regret, and stop Scotland being seen as a location that allows child marriage.

You might also prevent some marriages between loving couples who have thought seriously about marriage – but only for a couple of years until they are both 18. Can that really be a bad thing?

Allowing 16 year olds to marry, and without parental consent, is a Scottish tradition that has often been romanticised, a charter for smitten wee Romeos and MacJuliets to avoid being pushed into loveless unions. But the more pressing problem is that allowing marriage at such a young age could result in some young people being manoeuvred into wedlock against their will.

Girls Not Brides stresses there is an ongoing problem with religious or customary child marriages, so raising the legal marriage age is no panacea.

But outlawing marriage under the age of 18 just makes bad and exploitative marriages that much harder, is consistent with the UK’s efforts to end child marriage globally and makes more sense in a country that places a premium on children’s rights.

So come on, Holyrood: now it’s your turn.

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